Food Borne Illness

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Food Borne Illness Definition

Simply, food borne illness is a disease that is carried or transmitted to people by contaminated food. More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food. The food you eat may become contaminated in 1 or all of 3 ways:

  • Biological Hazards: this could be bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungi that may be in the food.
  • Chemical Hazards: this could be pesticides, food additives and preservatives, cleaning supplies, toxic metals that could leach through worn equipment, etc... that could accidentally get into food or may be added to food. Food allergies should also be considered in this category, such as an allergy to MSG.
  • Physical Hazards: this could be any physical thing (such as dirt, broken glass, metal shavings, etc...) that could accidentally get into food.


Foodborne illness often shows itself through the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever. Once a contaminated food is eaten, it is a matter of time before the symptoms present themselves. This amount of time varies and could be immediately on up to 30 days. People typically associate a foodborne illness with the most recent meal to the illness, which may or may not be the case. A person's age and their physical condition put some people at a higher risk of foodborne illness than others. Infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are some of those at an increased risk. Other factors that make controlling foodborne illness more challenging are:

  • Emerging pathogens demand even greater vigilance to food safety that what was required in previous generations.
  • The food supply has become global, with many different countries supplying food to the U.S.
  • Microorganisms continually adapt and evolve.

Prevention of Food Borne Illness

You can help to prevent foodborne illness. Following are just a few ways:

Wash Those Hands

Hands must be washed thoroughly before preparing foods and as necessary during food preparation. Hands must also be washed after using the restroom, after changing diapers, after handling pets, etc... The most effective way to wash hands is to use warm water and soap, rub hands together for at least 20 seconds, rinse thoroughly and dry with a paper towel.

Know the Temperature Danger Zone

The Temperature Danger Zone is the span of temperatures between 41°F and 135°F. Bacteria multiply rapidly at these temperatures, that is why it is essential to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Use a food thermometer to see that foods are at the proper temperatures.

  • Hot Foods Hot: This means that hot foods being held hot must be maintained at a temperature of 135°F or above.
  • Cold Foods Cold: This means that cold foods being held cold must be maintained at 41°F or below. A refrigerator may need to be set at 34°F to 38°F to maintain foods at these temperatures. Allow air to circulate.
    Plan ahead and defrost foods in the refrigerator.
    Marinate foods in the refrigerator.

Cook foods to the minimum proper final cooking temperature... especially if the product is a raw meat product or a product being reheated.
Be sure that there are no cold spots, stir and rotate foods during cooking.
Cook stuffing separate from meats (i.e., turkey).
Use pasteurized eggs for recipes requiring raw or partially cooked eggs.

Cooling must begin promptly, getting foods through the Temperature Danger Zone as quickly as possible.
Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers.
Cut up large pieces of meat.
Loosely cover leftovers until cooled

Avoid Cross-Contamination

  • Cross-contamination is how bacteria or debris is spread from a raw/unwashed food to a food that is ready-to-eat.
  • Keep raw foods separate from foods that are ready-to-eat. For example, store raw meats below ready-to-eat foods in the refrigerator.
  • Wash cutting boards, knives, utensils, and counter tops between preparing each food item. Also, remember to wash your hands.

Guidelines to Follow In Case of Suspected Food Borne Illness

  • Preserve the Evidence: If a portion of the suspect food is still available, it should be saved. Wrap it securely, mark it "Danger" or "Do Not Eat" and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Also, save any packaging or labeling associated with the suspect food and any identical, unopened products.
  • Document Your Illness: Keep track of what is happening with your illness. Document, in detail, what the food was, the date and time it was consumed, what your symptoms were and their severity, and when the onset of symptoms occurred.
  • Seek Treatment as Necessary: If symptoms persist, or you are in an "at risk" (Infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems) group you should seek medical care immediately.
  • Contact the Proper Authorities: The following may be contacted in case of a food borne illness:
    • Tazewell County Health Department. Call 309-929-0272 or 309-925-5511 (or your local health department) if the suspect food was served at a gathering or food service facility in that county. Also call if the product is a commercial product.
    • Have the following information at hand:
      1. Your name, address, and phone number
      2. Others, if any, that were ill
      3. Suspect food information
      4. Where the suspect food is from
      5. The date and time of consumption of suspect food
      6. Symptoms and their severity
      7. Onset date and time of each symptom
      8. Medical contacts, if any
    • Other items of interest may be:
      • Other meals previous to the illness
      • Other persons at suspect meal

USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. Call 1-888-MPHotline (888-674-6854) if the suspect food is a USDA product and you have all the packaging. Email Meat and Poultry Hotline.

Visit the Poison Control website or call 800-222-1222 in case of an accidental poisoning.